From Warriors to Tour Guides

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


In the wake of conflict, demobilizing combatants is as critical as ending the fighting if there is hope for the peace to last. When conflict ends, former fighters usually find themselves unemployed. But tourism is proving a viable way to deal with the social and political dangers of neglecting former fighters post-conflict.

Global tourism accounts for more than 10 per cent of global GDP and eight per cent of total employment worldwide. It grew by six per cent in 2007, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation. The Asia-Pacific region grew by 10 per cent, and Africa by eight per cent.

Ironically, much conflict has taken place in areas of natural beauty that offer a strong pull to tourists. While perception judging from the media is that conflict is getting worse, in fact trends show the opposite: according to Global Conflict Trends, “The levels of both interstate and societal warfare declined dramatically through the 1990s and this trend continues in the early 2000s, falling over 60% from their peak levels.”

A lot is at stake and it proves it is worthwhile to make peace pay – and that it is possible.

Battle-hardened rebels like 28-year-old Marjuni Ibrahim lived in the jungle and fought as guerrillas in Aceh, Indonesia. On the northwestern tip of Indonesia, Aceh was devastated by both a 30-year war that killed 15,000 people and the 2004 tsunami. Marjuni lost his sister and parents in the tsunami, in which more than 170,000 died or are missing.

Much of the coastline was destroyed, but the shock of the catastrophe pushed both sides into peace talks. The separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) battled the Indonesian army (TNI) up to 2005, when they signed a peace agreement.

Marjuni is now cashing in on a guerilla’s best survival technique: being tough. He now takes adventure and extreme-hiking enthusiasts deep into the jungle, where they once fought and lived. It is a habitat of steep, rocky trails, enormous teak trees – all with the reward of pristine waterfalls and refreshing rock pools for the hardy travelers.

The tours target mainly the community of aid workers in the area helping to re-build Aceh, but the hope is to expand: “I want to make the Acehnese aware of the potential for community-based tourism, and put Aceh on the map as a friendly tourism destination”, said Mendal Pols, a Dutch tour operator and founder of Aceh Explorer on the island, to Reuters.

The jungle is home to endangered Sumatran tigers, deer and hornbills.

“The area is very beautiful. I like trekking and I was interested to see what life was like during the conflict,” said Hugo Lamer, a Dutch trekker. “It’s difficult to imagine but three or more years ago they were running around here with guns and fighting the TNI. When I went, they took us to a place where they had lost some of their friends. And then you realize that we are there for fun, but for them this was really serious.”

In Vietnam, the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, formerly used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War, have become major tourist attractions. The vast network of underground tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City link up with a tunnel network stretching across the country, and were used as hiding spots and as supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon dumps and living quarters.

In Rwanda, the government turned to tourism to help heal the wounds of the massacre that led to the deaths of almost 1 million people in 1994. It markets its population of mountain gorillas, diverse landscape with volcanic ranges, hills, lakes and savannah. But it is also not covering up the past: genocide sites are also on the tourist itinerary. And it is meant to shock: in the town of Murambi, classrooms still contain the bodies of the people who were killed there, covered in lime to preserve them. In Kigali, a museum documents the genocide. Survivors lead the tours to help them heal from the horror.

The goal is to restore the country’s tourism industry and generate US $100 million a year by 2010. It is currently bringing in US $45 million. The approach is to target the ethical end of the tourism market. The idea is to use tourism as a means to avert the tensions that helped to cause the genocide in the first place: poverty, illiteracy and government hording all the wealth. The idea is to employ as many people as possible and spread the wealth as wide as possible.


  • The UN Environment Programme has a special division to advise on post-conflict and disaster management.

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